The Hanging Tree and Revolutionary War revenge

Sign near Biggerstaff Hanging Tree

Sign near Biggerstaff Hanging Tree

An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. And a noose for a noose.
Most people think that the Revolutionary War ended when the British surrendered to George Washington in Yorktown in 1781. Although it’s true that no more major battles were fought, British troops remained in the United States for another two years, and for some people here in western North Carolina, the war was far from over.
As long as the Redcoats roamed the land, there would be no peace for the American Patriots.
And payback would be hell.
On the 19th of June 1771 my fifth great-grandfather, Capt. Benjamin Merrill, was captured by British troops from his plantation in Rowan County and marched to the courthouse in Hillsborough where he was hanged for being a leader of the independence movement.
The judge pronounced this sentence: “You are to be hanged by the neck; that you be cut down while yet alive, that your bowels be taken
out and burnt before your face, that your head be cut off, your body divided into four quarters. . .”
He left a widow and 10 children.
It would be nine years until his family would get revenge.
Shortly after the Over Mountain Men (including Patriots from Lincoln County) beat the British at the Battle of Kings Mountain, Merrill’s brother, William, had the “privilege” of swinging Col. Ambrose Mills from an oak tree in neighboring Rutherford County. It was Col. Mills who had led the party that had captured his brother, and it was Col. Mills who would pay.
“It was late at night. Pine-knot torches were lit as the over-mountain men and their companions gathered four deep around the condemned prisoners,” one historian wrote. “Three at a time the Tories were swung from limbs of the giant oak. After the ninth hanging, a halt was called. Not all the patriots were ready to grant a reprieve. One bitter Tory-hater pointed to the limp bodies and voiced satisfaction: “Would to God every tree in the wilderness bore such fruit as that!”
The remaining condemned men were pardoned, and the nine already dead were left dangling from the tree as a warning to other loyalists in the area to not side with England.
Just as Capt. Merrill had been hanged as “warning” to the Patriots, Col. Mills was hanged as a “warning” those loyal to the crown.
Merrill was finally avenged for his brother’s death nine years earlier,.
But revenge ran deep on both sides.
Four months later, British troops raided William Merrill’s farm in Rowan County and carried him away over the protests of his wife, Mary, whose tongue was sliced in half by the Redcoats for giving them a piece of her mind.
Two of his sons, Benjamin and John, were hunting nearby and later told relatives that they saw the soldiers at a distance and heard their father’s voice, but they were afraid to shoot for fear they would shoot their father.
Leading the raid on Merrill’s farm was none other than son of the man that Merrill had hanged for hanging his brother. William Merrill was brought back to the same hanging tree in Rutherford County and was strung up to his death.
As we celebrated Veterans Day this week, few of us probably gave any thought to our first veterans – the brave men who battled against tremendous odds more than two centuries ago to give us the freedom we enjoy today.
They should never be forgotten.

Take time to say thanks to a veteran

My father, William H. Fortenberry, training as a Naval aviator in WWII

My father, William H. Fortenberry, training as a Naval aviator in WWII

Veterans Day 2013
Somewhere in all of my many boxes and envelopes of memories is my DD-214.
Many of you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, but for anyone who has served in the U.S. military, the DD-214 is more than just a piece of paper.
It is a short-form record of a service member’s term in uniform – proof that the person whose name is on the paper is a veteran.
My “Report of Separation” doesn’t say much about my days in the U.S. Army.
It states that I was a sharpshooter. It gives my rank at separation (E-4), my military job specialty (public information specialist), my dates of service and the type of discharge I received.
Honorable, of course.
It’s just a piece of paper, and while it accurately reflects the black-and-white facts of my two years in uniform, it doesn’t come close to telling the story of a young boy who became a man, and to this day is proud to say he is a veteran.
While I served during Vietnam, I did not serve in Vietnam, and when I think back on my days in uniform, I still feel a twinge of guilt for not having been in combat.
Oh, I wanted to be. I was ready for action, gung-ho in the middle of helicopter flight training in Texas when they “washed” me out because my vision wasn’t up to flight standards.
My dream of flying a helicopter gunship in Vietnam went down the drain in an Army optometrist’s puke-green office. I spent the rest of my time in service behind a desk, pecking on a manual typewriter, churning out stories about things that really didn’t matter or spinning tales about my commanding officer who desperately wanted a promotion before he retired and faded away.
I often looked out the window of my office as Hueys flew here and there on training missions, and had a kind of romance with the skies that went unfulfilled. Now and then one of the pilots I knew would feel sorry for me and invite me along as we zipped over the hills of Texas. Occasionally, one of them would let me handle the collective and the cyclic for a few moments and just for a heartbeat or two I’d pretend to have my wings.
I didn’t realize then how fortunate I was, and every Veterans Day, and especially on Memorial Day, I think about the fellows who did earn their wings and flew home in flag-covered boxes.
My heroes.
And I think about those guys who flunked out of flight school and ended up on the ground, eating dirt, dodging bullets, courageously taking the fight to the Viet Cong, and praying for the day they’d “rotate” home.
My heroes.
Sometimes I think about the guys I met in basic training who wound up in “Tiger Town” for advanced infantry training – a sure-bet ticket to the hell of war.
Whatever happened to them?
All of this brings me to the point of this column: What will you be doing next Monday?
The mail won’t be delivered.
School will be out.
Wall Street will be closed.
And if you’re one of the fortunate few, you’ll have the day off.
I hope that everyone who reads this remembers that Monday is not just another holiday; it’s Veterans Day, the day we set aside to honor everyone who has worn – and is wearing – a U.S. military uniform.
Please take a few minutes to say a quiet prayer for those who are serving, and if you think about it, seek out a veteran and just say thanks.
I know they’d appreciate it.

Take some time and listen to what the ‘old folks’ have to say

James Riley Byars and Susan Lesley Byars, my 2nd great-grandparents

James Riley Byars and Susan Lesley Byars, my 2nd great-grandparents

When I was a child I used to dread going to the annual family reunion and hearing the old folks talk about the good ol’ days.
Boring.
What I’d give to have just one of those “boring” days back again.
I never paid attention to what they were talking about, and when I did happen to overhear something that piqued my interest, I seldom gave it a second thought after the food was eaten and everyone went their separate ways for another year.
One of the stories I overheard as a child was that the reunion site – Table Rock State Park in South Carolina – was built on old family land, and the trails, waterfalls and mountaintops had belonged to my mother’s family since the late 1700s. They claimed the family had been forced to sell the land during the depression to make way for what became the state park and a county water reservoir.
Years later when I began tracing my family tree I was astonished to learn that the old folks’ “tale” was the absolute truth. The lake where I paddled a boat and swam on hot reunion afternoons as a child used to be the family cornfield, and much of that corn made its way into home-brew white lightning that the family sold to help make ends meet. They were land-rich and cash-poor.
Anna’s parents are both in their mid-90s, and the older I get the more I appreciate hearing their stories about days gone by in Lincoln County. Her parents’ ancestors helped settle Lincoln County, and a few of their stories and traditions were passed down from generation to generation. That kind of history seldom makes it into the history books, but is precious to family members.
What they don’t think is important or interesting, I find absolutely amazing.
I thought about the old family stories as I researched this week’s feature on the “Invisible Dead,” and once again was disappointed in the lack of written history about the old families of east Lincoln, and especially the black families.
You can dust off books that have chapters on the rich and the privileged white people of east Lincoln, but very little has been recorded about “regular” folks – black or white – and nearly nothing about black families and the slaves whose sweat and labor put Lincoln County on the map.
I bring all of this up as a challenge to everyone reading this column: Don’t let the “old folks” you know leave this world without taking the time to sit down and ask them to tell you about their lives.
Ask them about their childhoods, their favorite memories, their biggest disappointments, their hopes, their fears. The loves they had. The loves they lost. Ask them about school, their chores, family dinners. Get them to talk about the house they grew up in and any family traditions.
Get them to share with you everything they can recall about their parents, grandparents and the oldest person they knew as a child. How did they look? Did grandpa have a beard? Did great-grandma smoke a corn pipe? Ask them to talk about weddings, funerals and other special occasions.
And don’t forget to ask them about big days in history that occurred in their lives.
Most of all, just listen. Have some way to record the conversations so you can pay attention to what they say and ask follow-up questions. (Have a list of questions in advance).
When you’re finished, write what you have. You don’t have to be Hemingway. Just put it in writing and share it with the family. Believe me, years from now someone will be very glad you did.

Memorial Day 2011

Martin Beck's grave

Martin Beck’s grave

Please honor those who gave their lives for our nation

May 25, 2011

I was a dumb kid that summer back in 1969, filled with a dangerous mix of patriotism and an absolutely foolish lack of fear. Bold, confident, and seeking adventure, I was just the kind of person the U.S. Army was looking for to pilot a helicopter in the jungles of Vietnam.
On my very first day of basic training in the piney woods of Fort Polk, La., some of that brashness disappeared when a drill sergeant screamed into my ear and called me names I can’t repeat in a family newspaper. By the end of my first week I was wondering if I was really up to the task.
I was not alone.
All of us in E-3-1 were wondering the same thing, but somehow we endured – and grew – in the process.
One night while I sat on my bunk reading the Army Times, I turned the page to read the list of those who had died the previous week in Vietnam and felt a cold chill when I saw it in black-and-white:
BECK, Robert Martin, LTC, 24 July 1969.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Col. Beck, a Green Beret infantry commander, was the father of a friend of mine, and he, like several others I had known, was now little more than a statistic in a war full of painful statistics. Shot down by hostile fire in the Kien Tuong Province, Col. Beck was only 43 years old when the helicopter in which he was an observer was shot out of the sky by enemy fire. He had spent half of his life in uniform.
I felt a deep sadness for the entire Beck family, but instead of his death opening my eyes to the reality of what was ahead, I became even more determined to earn my wings and become a chopper pilot in Vietnam.
Col. Beck’s death needed to be avenged, and I was just the man (which I really wasn’t) to do it.
I made it though basic and headed off to Fort Wolters, TX for primary flight training. Fortunately for me, my days inside the cockpit of a helicopter were numbered, and what the Army claimed was bad vision, resulted in my spending the rest of my Army time pecking away on a typewriter instead of dodging bullets.
Vietnam claimed 2,197 helicopter pilots, the youngest of them barely 19. Most of them spent less than six months in the air before they lost their lives. They were heroes – every single one of them – and every American man and woman who stepped foot on that crummy nation were – and still are – heroes in my book.
* * *
Forty years ago last week I turned in my Army fatigues and headed home. My days as a soldier were over; my days as a journalist were beginning.
Every year this time – as our nation honors those who have died in service to their country- I think about Col. Beck and Pvt. Danny Daniels and Pvt. Kenneth Cassel and others I knew who perished in uniform.
I think about Sgt. Paul Lawing from Lincolnton – one of the last casualties of that horrible war – and get a lump in my throat.
Somehow, honoring these people one day a year is simply not enough. And unfortunately too many of us get so caught up in our own lives on Memorial Day that we forget the reason the day is celebrated.
When you’re cooking out next Monday, enjoying the holiday with family and friends, please take a minute and salute all of those precious souls throughout our nation’s history who have given their lives so that you can enjoy your day in freedom.
And also say a prayer for those brave men and women who are halfway around the world and just a heartbeat away from their own ultimate sacrifice.

Free-range buffalo, and feeling a bit like Captain Gus McCrae

Buffalo grazing in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma

Buffalo grazing in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma

‘The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things, like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk…’
– Capt. Gus McCrae

A prairie dog peeks out from its hole on a sweltering hot day and looks me squarely in the face. He seems to be wondering why I find him to be so interesting and so entertaining.
Free-range buffalo lumber across a grassy field, some of them taking time to slosh around in a shallow creek with the silhouette of a mountain range in the background.
An afternoon dip into the refreshingly cool Pedernales River, not bothering to worry about a telephone call to return or a deadline to meet.

At Geronimo’s grave, Fort Sill, Oklahoma

Laughing with my brother at a stupid joke hundreds of miles from nowhere and the gas tank nearing empty.
Paying respects at the grave of Oliver Loving, better known as retired Texas Ranger and “Lonesome Dove” character Capt. Gus McCrae.
Hearing the distant hoot of owls as a yellow-red morning sun rises over the Texas hills.
Standing in amazement on a riverbank, looking at the ancient tracks of dinosaurs.
Staring across miles of virtually untouched,waving prairie grasslands once roamed by brave Indians.
Gazing in awe into a clear Texas sky filled with billions of twinkling, bright stars.
Watching deer dart across a farm-to-market road.
Simple things. Meaningful things. Maybe not “every day” things like a soft bed or buttemilk, but gentle reminders of just how insignificant I am and what a wonderful country I live in. Just back from a quick trip to Texas and Oklahoma, I realize the wisdom in Gus McCrae’s words that it’s the little things in life that matter the most.

Are the good times really over for good?

Ken H. Fortenberry

Ken H. Fortenberry

Are the good times really over for good?

Commentary from Thanksgiving, 2010

Maybe it was naivety and innocence of childhood, the wide-eyed optimism of youth when the blindness of reality had not yet found a place in my mind.
Then again, it was a time when Americans reached for the stars and had a spirit of determination and freedom that the world desperately envied.
Although Thanksgiving 1963 was a time of massive turmoil in American history, there was still a sense of greatness about us, a pride among our people, a feeling that the best of times were still ahead of us, and nothing or no one could stop us.
Nothing or no one.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have the good sense to look into the mirror.
We had just come back from the brink of war with Russia. George Wallace was proclaiming “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” and Martin Luther King had a beautiful dream.
We were arguing among ourselves about some very substantive issues, but we still looked ahead with the optimism and the can-do attitude that only Americans have – or had.
We were moving from the stone-aged Flintstones to the jet-aged Jetsons and dreamed about such far-fetched ideas as phones with live pictures and ovens that could bake a potato in a matter of minutes.
We were working to put a man on the moon at the same time we were struggling to let freedom ring at the voting booth for
men and women of all colors.
Despite the challenges, despite the obstacles, despite the divisiveness, we were still boundtogether by the belief in an even brighter future. Most of us still believed that tomorrow was ours for the taking, but we also knew that it had to be earned by hard work and personal responsibility.

We may not have been the masters of our fates and the captains of our souls, but even as a teen I knew that the future was mine to shape and it was up to me – no one else – to ensure that I would become a responsible, productive citizen.
Little did I know that even then the wheels of government were rolling so fast and furiously that it wouldn’t be long before they were out of control.

* * *
It was cloudy, cool and damp that Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving when principal M.D. Putnam knocked on the door in my history class and asked our teacher, Margaret McChesney, to step outside. Moments later she walked back into the classroom, ashen-faced and teary-eyed.
The president of the United States had been shot, she said.
We listened through the static on the school intercom as the news announcer proclaimed that John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States, was dead, killed by an assassin’s bullet on the streets of Dallas, Texas.
I remember vividly the raindrops that seemed to cry as they ran down the school bus window while I stared in numbness at the passing color-less landscape on the way home.
Suddenly I was aware that the world I lived in was not what I had thought it was. As fast as a speeding bullet on Dealey Plaza I realized that things were going to be very different from now on.
And they were.
To keep JFK’s dream and image alive, the politicians in Washington immediately set about creating a new America, a great society where we tried to right wrongs with expensive legislation, and enacted policies that to this day tear at the very fiber of what America was and should still be.
The politicians may have had good intentions, but the road they began paving back then has been taking our nation straight to hell ever since.
The responsibility for your future and mine was suddenly no longer ours. The government would be responsible for us from pre-birth to death. Even our schools were no longer a local responsibility. The federal government would take care of that for us, too. Washington would give our kids a head start, but then regulate everything from what is taught in our classrooms to the food our children eat in the lunchroom, and even how our football bleachers are supposed to be constructed.
We mere citizens were too dumb, too ignorant, too prejudiced, too backward-thinking to be able to manage our lives without federal government intervention.
Uncle Sam then instructed us on how to live our lives – from buckling up to bowing down. Washington, of all places, began to establish the moral values for the nation and told us what and how to do it from our bedrooms to our deathbeds.
Violent lawbreakers, many of whom were dropped on their heads in childhood (like the politicians?) would be given special treatment, and law-abiding citizens would be treated as if they were the criminals.
The politicians took us on an expensive guilt trip that is fueled even now by our apathy and is given new birth every two years by blind party politics rather than common sense.
While I firmly believe that all Americans have the right to be treated with respect, dignity and equality, in our zest to correct some wrongs of the past, we ended up – of all places – upside down.
Instead of the citizens telling Washington what to do, Washington tells us what to do, and we let it happen, wringing our hands in despair and desperation along the way.
Government of the people, by the people and for the people should never be government “to” the people.
We have turned into a nation of whiners where government handouts have created generations of able-bodied men and women with “entitlement” mentalities who expect things to be given to them just because they live and breathe the same air as the rest of us.
We have become a nation of cowards who don’t have the guts to stand up and speak out, afraid to challenge the status-quo, more fearful of what other people may think about us than in saying and doing the right things.
Popularity politics and party politics have become more important than policy politics, and far too many of us don’t take the time to understand – to really understand – the issues so we can elect people who will help turn our country around.
* * *
For many Americans, these are bleak times. Millions are unemployed and losing not only their homes, but their hopes and dreams as well.
The government tells us that the recession is over, but our pocketbooks tell us otherwise. The government says it can spend our way out of the mess it helped create, but you and I both know otherwise. Yet we continue to look to Washington for answers. When will we ever learn that Washington is the problem, not the solution?
We have the brainpower to put America back to work and back on track, but we seem to lack the necessary willpower.
And for a nation that was created by the willpower and independent determination of men and women who refused to accept anything less than their best, this is incredulous.
What we need is not some kind of armed revolution to “take America back.”
America has never left us.
We have left it.
We have left it to greedy, self-serving politicians who line their pockets with our hard-earned money and tax us to death at the same time.
We have left it to bureaucrats who create unnecessary rules and regulations that deprive us of our liberty and our spirit.
We have left it to welfare mothers and dead-beat dads who look to the government (that’s you and me) to provide everything from the roofs over their heads to the food in their bellies and a free ride to the unemployment office.
In other words, we have left America to others and have shirked our personal responsibility to not only save it from extinction but even of restoring it to what it once was and can yet become again.
No, we don’t need an armed revolution. We need individual revolution. Revolution in our own homes and communities. Revolution of spirit, of dreams, of independence, of respect, and most of all, revolution of personal responsibility.
Your brother is really not your keeper. You are.
* * *
While many of us are frustrated by the circumstances that we face in our lives and in our nation on this thanksgiving, there is still very much we take for granted. One of those things is the fact that we still live in the greatest nation in the world. We should be thankful every day of our lives for that privilege, and pledge from this day forward to do everything we can to get our country back on track and out of our lives, one person at a time.